Month: November 2007

An accident waiting to happen

Surely there should be no surprise at all about Labour’s latest breach of the rules on donating to political parties. After all, it’s an easy thing to do. You want to give money to a political party but don’t want to admit that you have done it, so what’s the obvious thing to do? Give the money to someone else who then donates it on your behalf. It is so simple to do, and need only involve two people having knowledge of the arrangement. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out that it has happened before and in other parties too.

What surprises me most of all though is how amateurish it has all been. The people picked to give the donations have no track record of donating to Labour, their lifestyles suggest that they wouldn’t have that amount of money to give away, they told lots of people about the arrangement, and they were people who didn’t know what to say when the media came knocking at the door. It is obvious to assume that journalists look at the list of large donors, and will be interested in any new names they haven’t seen before. The amateurism of it then gets worse when Labour go on to say that they didn’t know it was illegal, when anyone who has even the slightest involvement with reporting party donations will know that it is either (a) illegal, or (b) not in the spirit of the law, which should then make you check it with someone who does know the law.

But despite this, I do have some sympathy for David Abrahams when he says that people who want to donate to political parties these days are treated as if they are a criminal. The vast majority of donors give money to political parties because they support what that party stand for and want to help it be successful. It’s all very honest and altruistic. Whilst I support the law as it stands, because transparency in politics is important, there is a logical argument that what people do with their own money is up to them and surely if you want to give money to a political party without everyone in the world knowing that it has come from you, is perfectly reasonable. In fact in the current case, there is no doubt that David Abrahams is a legitimate donor, it is just that he chosen to use an illegal way of giving the money so as to retain his privacy.

I have had discussions with non political activists who have said that every donation should be declared and go on the public record, no matter how large or small, just so that there is complete transparency. But it is worth remembering that the vast majority of donations are small and come from ordinary people who don’t want to shout about their politics and live ordinary lives on a middle to low income. They could well be one of your next-door neighbours. Not only is it fair that people should be allowed to keep small donations private, but we also have to consider what lengths a party should have to go to, to check that a donation is legal? It is hard enough finding treasurers for all types of voluntary organisations, but if you strengthen the laws on donating to political parties even further, can you imagine how difficult it will be for local political parties to find anyone to do such an onerous and legally difficult job?

In this case, Labour made a stupid mistake, and one where it was easy for them to be caught. They should pay the penalty for that, but the latest scandal should not be an excuse for tightening up the donation rules even further.

Clegg & Huhne versus the real opposition

I am so proud. Yes, I know it makes me sound soft, but it’s the best way of describing how I feel tonight after watching the Newsnight debate. I am genuinely proud of Nick Clegg’s performance tonight.

Nick answered every question concisely and to the point, but also went on to expand on his brief answer. He was truly liberal, laid to rest most of the accusations against him, seemed genuinely ambitious and visionary, and even dealt well with the difficult questions on coalition and immigration.

But most of all he handled Paxman well, by being persistent, telling him to shut up when he had to, but answering the questions properly at the same time. I think it is fair to say that Paxman wasn’t at his rottweiler best, (maybe he was worried that Chris would punch him), but it showed that Nick can answer the tough questions as well as the easy ones something which, if I’m honest, he hasn’t always done.

As this campaign has gone on I’ve been through ups and downs emotionally. It’s just a part of being so close to the campaign. My summary of how I think it has gone is that Nick started off well, Chris then challenged hard for a while with Trident and school vouchers, it all went flat part way through as the media lost interest, the general consensus was that Chris then won on Question Time (I never blogged on it, but I think that Chris started off strongly and maintained that throughout, Nick got better as it went on and was very good at the end but it wasn’t quite enough), Chris then went mad on The Politics Show (which has gone down badly with members if our canvassing is anything to go by), and then Nick has shone tonight and turned in a stunning performance.

Something for everyone perhaps, but I think what it has shown is that when Nick is good he is brilliant and can really enthuse you, when Chris is good he is competent but dull. I would much rather go with the former.

Campaign veterans for truth – is Huhne americanising politics?

huhnecampaign.jpgI ask this question after reading in The Guardian about the leadership debate on The Politics Show followed shortly by an article about New York firefighters opposing Rudy Giuliani’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Where I’m coming from is this. American politics, from the eyes of those of us across the Atlantic, is characterised by relentless negative attacks on your opponent and finding the slightest wrongdoing or policy weakness, exaggerating it massively and then spending thousands running negative campaigns attacking your opponent on those handful of issues. These attacks are either mounted directly by your opposing candidate or by some new organisation set up by ‘interested parties’ who oppose your election, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who tried to undermine John Kerry’s presidential bid by claiming that he was lying about his Vietnam record.

OK, so Chris Huhne’s criticisms of Nick Clegg are not quite in that league, far from it, but what is happening in the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign is far more negative than we have seen before, and is something that even the other parties have stopped doing in their leadership elections (when they bother to have them). It is one thing to question your opponent on their views and to challenge them on their record, but to send a briefing to ITV which contains distortions to try and brief against your opponent is underhand. Still, it has had the unintended consequence of making many people who watched the programme ring up the Clegg Campaign to offer their help and support.

I accept that negative campaigning is a standard part of electioneering, whether people like it or not. All opinion polls will tell you that the public don’t like punch and judy politics and they don’t like negative campaigning, but the reason why parties do it is a mixture of hotheadedness and the fact that negative campaigning usually works. Actually, that is a simplification. Negative campaigning works when what you are saying is reasonable and you are drawing parallels between what you say and what they say. But to distort your opponent’s views, tell people he is lying and then simply barrack them on national TV does not, in my view, come within the bounds of being reasonable. Particularly when that opponent is in your own party. If Nick is elected leader, and if the other political parties (as I suspect they will) use the ‘Calamity Clegg’ line against him, then Chris will have seriously undermined the party as a whole and not just Nick Clegg.

513kv2rcwpl_ss500_.jpgThe reason I ask the question in the title of my post though is because that is how I feel about it. It struck me when I read the Guardian that there were clear parallels, but I am unsure as to whether it is an exaggeration to say that the Huhne campaign is adopting American campaign techniques or not. Another thing I’ll throw in though is that Chris Huhne bought me the book “Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When you Foul Up“, when I worked for him, which perhaps could give some validity to my question. This book by James Carville and Paul Bergala covering Bill Clinton’s campaign techniques is interesting and yes, there are useful things in it, but whether we want to adopt that way of campaigning is something I have major doubts over.

My final comment on the Politics Show debate though is purely a personal gripe. I wish politicians wouldn’t use the phrase ‘flip-flop’ to describe an opponents political views. It is yet another Americanism that came over here following the Bush versus Kerry presidential contest, and I just hate the phrase. It says nothing and just annoys me. Nothing rational I know, but a personal feeling.

GUARDIAN: New York firefighters to oppose Giuliani

N.B. Thanks to Nich Starling who I hope won’t mind me stealing his alternative Chris Huhne logo.

More on those European selections

It’s starting to feel as though a huge tidal wave has been unleashed. You get lots of people being cagey about the Lib Dem European candidate selections, and then suddenly when the result is known everyone has an opinion. The best of them so far is from James Graham, who explains some of the problems with the selection process, but also clarifies the gender balance situation very well.

Firstly, on a positive note I am really pleased to see some the results of some selections, particularly Ed Maxfield in the East Midlands who has come second on their list and now looks a good bet to be the next Liberal Democrat MEP for that region. I first knew Ed when we were activists in the East Midlands (he as the regional campaigns officer and me as a councillor in Derby), we both then ended up in Hampshire (he as county campaigns officer and me as constituency organiser for Eastleigh) and then have remained friends ever since. Ed is down to earth and personable, a great campaigner, but also has some very strong views on the way Europe and politics generally work.

But as far as I am concerned that is where the good news ends. These results show once again that it is impossible to defeat an incumbent MEP in a selection. Although that should not be a huge surprise, the margins by which they were all re-elected were massive and show that anyone who harbours the idea of defeating them is doomed to defeat. So far though most Liberal Democrats are blaming the selection rules which allow MEPs to continue their ‘normal duties’ such as putting out glossy leaflets to members and news updates by email. But really this huge advantage for the incumbent is no different from the one we have with MPs as sitting MPs are also impossible to shift. In fact it is probably worse as MPs don’t even have to go through a full selection process. With MPs we rightfully blame the first-past-the-post electoral system, rather than the party selection rules. Just as with MEPs selections, the real villain of the piece is the closed list system that was adopted by the Labour Government and which we rightfully argued against at the time. We have some excellent MEPs like Sharon Bowles, Fiona Hall and Chris Davies, but they should win on the grounds of them being excellent rather than just because they can get taxpayers and party members to pay for their re-selection.

Despite these comments that sort of defend the selection procedure, I do wonder though how we selected some of the people on the lists. Linda Jack, has already admitted that she didn’t try to get selected, and yet she came second in Eastern Region, although incidentally, having met Linda for the first time in recent weeks I reckon she would make an excellent MEP. Colin Ross, a long-standing friend who has wanted to be an MEP in the West Midlands for many years, who is determined to be an MEP and not an MP, who has campaigned hard to get selected, and who has done a lot for the party in the region over many years, only managed 4th. Now I know that I am biased because it is one of my own friends who has not performed as well as I would have hoped, but it does seem quite odd as the mantra of all party activists is that you have to campaign hard to get elected. In this election, it has almost seemed as though campaigning is counterproductive and you’d have been better off sat at home doing nothing for two months.

So the only reason I can come up for the selections is fame. Whilst Colin is relatively well known in his region, maybe he is not as those who came higher up the list such as Phil Bennion, Susan Juned and Liz Lynne. A similar thing happened in Yorkshire, where James Monaghan, who ran a good campaign and tried hard to get selected, came fifth for his efforts. It appears that with such a huge region, where you are not permitted to post anything as a part of your campaign and where you are never going to get close to meeting the majority of the membership, you only win by being famous. The best parallel I can come up with is the party’s own leadership election, where in previous contests Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell won probably largely because they were the best known candidates rather than because they ran good campaigns. This time I suspect the fame of the leadership contenders is more evenly matched. So to get selected you can be famous, competent and be a good campaigner (see Jonathan Fryer and Catherine Bearder) but most of all you have to be famous.

My final thoughts though on the European candidate selection come from the phone canvassing I did for Ed Maxfield and Colin Ross. Phone canvassing is usually a good indicator of support for someone, but I found that much of what I did this time told me nothing when people don’t know any of the candidates. In a public election, people have some idea as to whether they are Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. In an internal selection, you don’t have people saying “I’m a convinced Maxfieldite, in fact I come from a long line of them. Did you know that my Mum delivered leaflets for him in the 1918 election?” So with every person you are starting almost from scratch. They may well have heard of your candidate, but they don’t know who else is standing until they get the ballot paper. So although they tell you on the phone that they will vote for your candidate as you are the only person to bother, that changes when they get the ballot paper and recognise other names too. In public elections, you have usually had leaflets from all of the candidates by the time it comes for you to vote. Perhaps in internal selections we need an early mailing to tell people that a selection is happening shortly, who the candidates are and some artwork from each one. This can then be followed up at the end of the campaign with the ballot paper and another piece of literature from each candidate. In the meantime each candidate can do whatever campaigning they want as long as it doesn’t breach an expenses rule and it doesn’t defame another candidate (although how you determine what is defamation and what is fair comment would be a nightmare, just look at the comments made by people about Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg so far). I have seen a selection done like this once before and it showed who were the real campaigners and who weren’t, and the result at the end of it was a fair one, with the famous candidates doing well, but with a previously unknown campaigner running them very close.

COLIN ROSENSTIEL: Liberal Democrat internal election results

Those blog comments we all love to read

Seeing the title of this post by Alix Mortimer reminded me of the reason I am trying to avoid reading the comments on websites such as Political Betting and UK Polling Report at the moment. They are getting so repetitive, and usually run along the following lines:

Original post: Don’t you think the new Liberal Democrat idea to make eating carrots compulsory is great? This will really make the party stand out in the future.
1. geoff – this is the wrong question. Do people not realise that under a land based taxation system…… [etc etc etc zzzzzzz….]

2. vege sandal wearer – this is the first time I have posted here. Does anyone know if they mean organic carrots or just any carrots?

3. anonymous – who cares, it’s the lib dems?

4. friendofmarx – this is just further proof that the lib dems have now become another conservative party.

5. a nonny mouse – the real problem for the Lib Dems is that they are too left wing. What they need is someone like David Laws as leader, then they will be a credible party again.

6. iwanttokissdavecameronsarse – well there won’t be any Lib Dem MPs after the next election anyway as the current opinion polls, combined with tactical voting by Labour and UKIP, plus with the extra 10% in the polls that the Conservatives will get when people realise what an excellent PM David Cameron will make, means that the Lib Dems are now doomed forever. In my own constituency of Southwark & Bermondsey the Conservative message is going down really well with people now and I really think our candidate, once we have selected one, is going to get at least an 8,000 majority with Simon Hughes falling to fourth.

7. bloggersforchris – iwanttokissdavecameronsarse is talking rubbish. When Chris Huhne becomes leader of the Liberal Democrats the party will pick up at least another 300 seats next time. Chris already has the other parties worried due to his radical left-wing credentials and his dynamic and outgoing personality. The Lib Dems have a bright future.

8. bloggersfornick – what are bloggersforchris and iwanttokissdavecameronsarse talking about? When Nick Clegg becomes leader of the Liberal Democrats the party will pick up at least another 400 seats next time. Nick already has the other parties worried due to his radical liberal credentials and his way of reaching out to people who are liberals but don’t yet vote for us and due to his infectious cheery manner. The Lib Dems have a bright future.

9. iceman – not the Lib Dems again, why not concentrate on serious parties.

10. dolce vita – so would Nick Clegg provide these carrots with vouchers? It’s time people were given an answer.

11. mamma mia – I think 2 raises a really interesting point there. If you look at the history of carrot growing, and the late boom in vegetable growing in the 1960s, then you will see how it gave Eric Lubbock a big boost to his campaign in Orpington. With a standard allotment co-efficient then the Liberal Democrats could be on to a winner with this. Assuming standard electioneering techniques and tactical voting by Green voters.

12. you cannot be serious – has anyone seen this story about Ian Blair: Looks like he’s doomed to me.

13. anonymous – lol

14. anonymous2 – well done Lib Dems for bringing up this important issue.

15. roger the lodger from next door – Oh come on? This idea is ludicrous. What we are calling for is to make carrot eating compulsory. But there is a lot of evidence that broccoli is better for you. If we go ahead with the current proposal then the other parties will raise the problems we had two years ago with the Eurocarrot. Perhaps what we need is a referendum, or maybe a all-party royal commission to debate the issue. I am glad that someone has raised this though as it is very important to debate the choice of vegetables that we are consuming. I trust that Vince Cable, who is doing an excellent job I might add, would be doing everyone a service by looking at a policy paper on this.

And so it goes on and on and on…..

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Kirsty Williams on the “gloopy grey consensus”

Kirsty Williams AMThroughout the leadership contest, there’s been a lot of people calling for a strong vision of what the party should be saying and how it reaches out to people. Well today someone has answered that call in a pretty powerful way, but it hasn’t been from Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne, but Welsh Assembly Member Kirsty Williams.

It isn’t often that you hear people rally the party with words like “a closed system where the same people meet in the same rooms to discuss the same ideas – a system which doesn’t embrace the radical or the alternative” or attack the “gloopy grey consensus” of the “Cardiff Bay bubble”.

I worked with Kirsty on her Welsh Assembly election campaign in 2003 and quite simply she is one of the best candidates I have ever had the fortune to work with. She is articulate, intelligent, presentable, caring, funny and also understands the importance of campaigning to the party. What I hadn’t heard her talk about was her ‘vision’ and what the Welsh party would be like under her leadership (I am of course assuming she will stand one day, something which I don’t know), but from the little I have read of today’s talk in Aberystwyth, that sounds pretty impressive too.

BBC WALES: Lib Dems ‘liberalism’ rally call

St. Pancras Station

ray-385_230273a.jpgIt isn’t often that a building still has the capacity to wow you when you step in to it. But I remember how stunned I was a year or two ago when I first saw the inside of the restored St. Pancras Station. The station has now been officially opened by the Queen and next week train services to France and Belgium start using the station properly.

I have always loved this grand Victorian architecture. Last Friday night I travelled up to Halifax and although nothing can probably quite beat St. Pancras Station in its drama, even some of the most ordinary institutions there have some amazing Victorian architecture. It comes from a time when there was huge civic pride and when private companies wanted to show off what they could achieve. It’s a far cry from the dominant attitude now of building things that are cheap in the short-term even if in the long term they become utterly disposable, become more expensive to maintain and just don’t stand the test of time in terms of architecture and design. As Duncan Borrowman points out, it is reassuring though that we can still put these buildings to good use by combining the historic architecture with modern engineering.

The whole logistics of building the new station whilst keeping trains running in to it for most of the time is pretty impressive too. I remember sitting in a meeting whilst I worked at Midland Mainline’s head office when they explained how they would have to close the station for certain weekends and then reopen it just five minutes before the first arrival on a Monday morning. We all looked at the person who told us this with incredulity as we just knew that it would never happen on time and if there was only five minutes slack there would be complete chaos as the train would end up having to terminate at a small station like Kentish Town, at rush hour, when another train was due in straight after it. As far I know everything did work out OK in the end, and for such a huge engineering project it has gone remarkably well.

I do still have a soft spot for the old grimy and run down St. Pancras though, and I feel a slight sadness that it has gone. I spent a year working on board Midland Mainline’s trains between Sheffield and St. Pancras, and not just in their head office, and so St. Pancras became a second home. Even after leaving that job, I felt comfortable and as though I was nearly home as soon as I came through the archway at the front of the old station. I even feel a sense of warmth towards the old Shires Bar. It might have been a tatty bar that reeked of stale smoke and beer, but it felt quite cosy and the bizarre mix of business people, weekend tourists, foreign students and beggars meant it was a great place for people watching. In my time I was at Midland Mainline the Station Manager at St. Pancras had promised a group of us a tour of the bits of the station that you never normally saw, unfortunately she never got around to doing it as it would have been great to have seen it before the restoration as well as now afterwards.

One thing with the new station that I do feel slightly sad about though is how Midland Mainline, the nearest there is to a successor to the company that build St. Pancras in the first place, is now pushed out to four remote platforms in what is basically a modern lean-to at the end of the old station. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair, but that part of the station does feel like an afterthought.

But despite that one downside to the station, it is great to arrive in to London and see such an amazing building there to greet you. Now that the rest of the building is going to be opened, I am looking forward to seeing more of it on my next trip to London.

BBC NEWS: A tour around the new look St. Pancras station